Would You Allow Your Son To Play Tackle Football?

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While there is no right or wrong answer–only a decision to be made one family at a time–the question has more relevance than ever. And we all know why. 


Should kids play tackle football?

It’s a fascinated question for me because I didn’t face that question much (if at all) in my youth. So I’ve been following the numbers and writing about the outcomes.

New data were just released in a study commissioned by The Sports and Fitness Industry Association, a trade association comprised of “sports and fitness brands, suppliers, retailers, and partners.”

Courtesy: Pop Warner

The results (reported thankfully by CNN.com, the report costs $245) are eye-opening. Based on a 2016 survey of nearly 25,000 American households, researchers found that nearly 1 million American kids age 6-12 are participating in tackle football. Getting “counted” involved saying “yes” to whether a child engaged in tackle football 26 or more times a year.

I’m surprised the numbers are that high, especially because–based on medical research–parents are being advised against permitting young kids to play tackle football. But I also know that “It won’t happen to me or mine” is a strongly held belief.

I also know that campaigns are underway to counter negative images of the game. A leading advocate is The National Football Foundation, another industry group (yes, football is an industry) that’s on a mission. It’s “to promote and develop the power of amateur football in developing the qualities of leadership, sportsmanship, competitive zeal and the drive for academic excellence in America’s young people.”

NFF has a spokesperson, too. It’s not a former football player or a current gridiron star. It’s a mom, the eponymous Pam Martin, who’s personage and personality is ideal for selling the game to questioning parents.

There’s a good reason why promotion is relevant–football participation has been on the decline–down over 25,000 at the high school level in just one year (2015-16). And the Sports and Fitness Industry Study found, overall, that participation in youth tackle football has declined 1.8% over the past five years.

The interesting thing, though, is that survey also discovered a “bump,” that is, a 1.7% participation increase in just one year (2015-2016). Pop Warner football, a popular option nationally, enrolls nearly 90,000 kids, CNN reports.

But the really surprising finding (to me) was the general decline in youth participation across a number of sports. During a 5-year period–from 2011-16–the declines were 24% in track/field, 19% in outdoor soccer, 9% in baseball, and 4% in basketball.

What’s going on? One answer is money. Money makes a difference in multiple ways. First, there’s a direct relationship between money and participation, especially these days with travel teams and other expenses involved. “About 28% of 13-to 17-year-olds from family incomes of less than $25,000 play team sports, and about 46% of that age group from households that make more than $100,000 play organized sports,” reports the Dallas Morning News. “That gap has grown by four percentage points since 2014.”

But participation can also be attractive to households of lower socioeconomic standing. And that assertion applies particularly, although not exclusively, to football. It can happen when playing a sport is interpreted as a potential pathway to upward socioeconomic mobility. Put another way (not always, but many times) the potential reward (e.g., college scholarship) is worth the risk.

Courtesy: Texas High School football

So, then, who’s willing to assume that risk?

That question makes Pam Martin an especially interesting spokesperson. She’s white and living a middle-class lifestyle. Football wants to attract — and not lose — parents like Pam. Her message to parents is important: Don’t be concerned.

But, of course, many parents are. That’s because there’s another side to the story–a frightening one, too.

You’ll get over 2 million hits if you do a Google search of “kids under 13 shouldn’t play tackle football.” I did the search on November 2 and the lead hit was Football Alters The Brain Of Kids As Young As 8.

Here’s a passage from that article: “Last year researchers at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that NFL players who had begun playing football before age 12 had a higher risk of altered brain development, as compared to players who started later. And this August, Ann McKee, director of the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Center, said that kids under 14 shouldn’t play football, reminding The Washington Post that kids’ heads are “a larger part of their body, and their necks are not as strong as adults’ necks. So kids may be at a greater risk of head and brain injuries than adults.”

So, would you allow your son to play tackle football? I wouldn’t. But, thankfully, my wife and I never had to make that decision because our son never showed interest in playing football. He played youth soccer and basketball and, then, was on the golf team in both high school and college.

He loves football as do we. But playing the game is another story–an important one, too. How so? Does it make sense to love a game — to patronize it in a variety of ways — but shy away from playing it? Millions of us do just that. We endorse a game we know is dangerous, a game that we wouldn’t play ourselves or allow our kids to play.

Courtesy: Dudemom

I’m sure Pam Martin would shake her head in response to my assertion. She might say, “Frank, you’re out of step with most Americans.”

She’d be right, too.

Just a week ago, the Sharkey Institute conducted a national poll for Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business. 715 adult Americans were queried on October 23-25 (margin of error, 3.9%). Respondents were asked: If you were to allow your child to play football, at what age would you allow him to play, 7-11, 12-15, 16 or older, or never?

Nearly 40% of those surveyed preferred 7-11 years of age. Another 30% picked 12-15 years of age. Only 20% (the category I would have picked) replied, “Never.” (The others replied “at age 16+” or had “no opinion.”)

Why would so many folks endorse kids’ participation in a risky activity? There are many reasons, of course. Here’s Rachel Lu’s interpretation: “Physical danger is an organic component of some thumotic (that is, spirited) sports. Even if the danger is non-trivial, there are clear distinctions to be drawn between sports like football (where we do make real efforts to avoid and mitigate the physiological harms) and gladiatorial contests (where maiming and killing was actually the goal). We are not barbarians for enjoying this superb sport, which has done so much to develop and display thumotic excellence.”

Pam Martin would no doubt agree.

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About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.



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